The rugged individualist is a stereotype of American character, the loner who succeeds or fails based only on the person’s abilities, effort, and moral fiber. The Horatio Alger stories, which represent this core American value, are one variation on this theme. But can the cult of self get out of control?
Americans have always been unusual in the degree to which we hold the individual to be the arbiter of what’s right and wrong. Critics of American character blame the supremacy of the individual as the cause of everything from marital dissolution and abandonment of children to violence and disregard of one’s fellows. But reality is more complex, according to Made in America by Claude Fischer.
The individualistic impulse is not expressed by going it alone, but by joining groups and forming relationships, as paradoxical as this might seem. “A person best meets his or her personal ends with others in freely chosen fellowship,” Fischer says. Choosing where to live, to work, to worship, and who to marry or befriend is the way Americans meet their needs.
So, have we become more individualistic over time? The answer, says Fischer, is no—at least not in the sense that we prize independence and self- reliance more now than before. What has changed is the range of opportunities to express individualism. Growing security, affluence, and the proliferation of voluntary groups of all kinds gave Americans more ways to join and leave as they saw fit.
We haven’t been corrupted by a rising focus on the self. “Americans did not turn into free lovers, free thinkers, ramblers, rebels, or anarchists,” Fischer concludes. “They remained by Western standards remarkably committed to family, church, community, job and nation.” The freedom to exit social bonds is matched by the requirement of commitment to those groups one elects to join.
But, what do you think?
Do you buy this account of individualism and opportunity in America?
Or, have we really been corrupted by an unhealthy focus on the self?
Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.